What if this time is different?
There is an assumption that the 2020 presidential election will be business as usual: Donald Trump will run on the economy, social issues and immigration, and the Democratic candidate will run on income inequality, Democratic socialism and Trump’s character — the 2020 version of right-left U.S. politics.
But I believe there’s a sleeper issue out there that could force its way into the election. What if Mother Nature is on the ballot?
What if all the extreme weather this year — linked to climate change — gets even worse and more costly? What if the big 2020 issue is not left-right — but hot-cold or wet-dry? What if the big 2020 issue is not “Who lost Russia?” or “Who lost North Korea?” but “Who lost planet Earth?”
We’re talking about the natural world, so one has to be cautious. But if you look at all the destructive extreme weather buffeting the world this summer alone, it’s as if Mother Nature were saying to us: “Oh, you didn’t notice me tapping on your shoulder these past few years? O.K. Well, how about a little fire, Scarecrow? How about this:
“How about I bake Europe, set the biggest wildfire California has ever seen and more active wildfires — 460 in one day — than British Columbia has ever seen, and also start the worst forest fires in decades in Sweden, even extending north of the Arctic Circle where temperatures this month reached 86 degrees. Meanwhile, I’ll subject Japan to the heaviest rainfall it’s ever recorded, and then a couple weeks later the highest temperature it’s ever recorded — 106 degrees in Kumagaya, northwest of Tokyo. And for a punctuation mark, I’ll break the heat record in Death Valley, reaching 127 degrees, and burn the worst drought in living memory into Eastern Australia, where the BBC last week quoted a dairy farmer as saying, “It’s gotten to the point where it’s cheaper to shoot your cows than it is to feed them.”
While climate scientists have long argued that you can’t attribute any single weather event to climate change, a study last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded: “The science has advanced to the point that this is no longer true as an unqualified blanket statement. In many cases, it is now often possible to make and defend quantitative statements about the extent to which human-induced climate change … has influenced either the magnitude or the probability of occurrence of specific types of events or event classes.”
Climate change makes the hots hotter, the wets wetter and the dries drier.
Heidi Cullen, chief scientist for Climate Central, an environmental organization, was quoted as telling the Weather Channel in July that the national academies’ report connecting global warming to the increased risk and severity of certain classes of extreme weather — like some of the heat waves, floods and droughts we’re experiencing — carries the same scientific import as the U.S. surgeon general’s 1964 report connecting smoking to lung cancer.
In other words: Mother Nature is done letting us pretend that we don’t know and can’t connect the dots — and that could create some very interesting politics.
Democrats have been casting about for a big idea to propel them in 2020. My free advice: If Democratic socialism or Democratic Trotskyism or abolishing ICE — the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — is what will get you elected as a Democrat in your district in 2018, go for it. The Democrats must take the House back. But Trump would feast on those issues in a national election.
However, if in 2020 we’re in the midst of even more damaging droughts and storms than we are today, Democrats may be able to run against Trump’s make-America-polluted-again environmental strategy and his refusal to either acknowledge the threat of climate change or seize the incredible opportunity it offers America to become richer, healthier, more secure and more respected by leading the world in clean energy technologies.
Trump has no answer for that. He doesn’t believe the climate science that NASA is telling him is true. He is trying to bring back coal precisely when wind, solar and efficiency are becoming cheaper, cleaner, healthier alternatives — precisely when four of the five biggest wind states are red states and precisely when China has committed itself to owning the clean power and electric car markets of the future! He’s trying to force the U.S. auto industry to bring back gas guzzlers when the last time we did that — from the 1980s to the 2000s — Japan and Korea bankrupted Detroit and we enriched petro-dictators from Venezuela to Russia to the Arab world to Iran.
Trump is the president who’s throwing away our umbrella right before the storm.
Sure, Trump will sneer that “green” is girlyman, uneconomic, unpatriotic and vaguely French. But Democrats can easily counter that green is globally strategic, locally profitable and working class — green is the new red, white and blue. That message can play today in Rust Belt battleground states like Michigan and Ohio. One recent clean energy industry study found that 714,257 people in 12 Midwestern states work in renewable energy generation, clean transmission, energy efficiency, clean fuels and advanced transportation. Some 108,000 in Ohio alone do, compared with 38,000 in the coal, oil and gas fields.
The Democratic message could start with some simple math: There are currently 7.6 billion people on the planet, and in 2030 there will be 8.6 billion — another one billion in just over a decade! If even half of them get cars, have air-conditioners and eat high-protein diets like Americans now do, we will devour and burn up the planet beyond recognition. So what does that mean? It means clean energy and efficiency have to be the next great global industry or we’re going to be a bad biological experiment, whether there is climate change or not. Does anyone — other than Trump — believe that America can continue to dominate the world economy and not lead the next great global industry, but leave that to China?
The Democratic strategy should be built around putting together the performance standards, research and carbon pricing to achieve what Energy Innovation C.E.O. Hal Harvey calls “the four zeros.” These are, Harvey explains: 1. “A zero-carbon grid. Right now, Republican states like Texas and Wyoming dominate the U.S. wind industry and are reaping most of the jobs and environmental benefits. That should go national. 2. Zero-emission vehicles. When you combine a zero-carbon grid with electric vehicles, bingo, you have zero-carbon transportation. 3. Zero-net energy buildings. What if you could build a well-insulated home, put today’s inexpensive solar panels on the roof and, over the course of a year, produce as much energy as you consume? Fantastical? No. It’s now the law in Santa Monica, and getting most of the way there is already feasible — and cost-effective — throughout the country. 4. Zero-waste manufacturing. New techniques in manufacturing, such as 3-D printing or advanced chemistry, can slash waste — and waste is a tax on both the budget and the earth.”
Now that’s a platform worth running on, and it’s one that can do what Democrats need most: make them the party of strengthening the working class and American security.
Clean power, clean cars, clean manufacturing and efficient buildings make everything we want to achieve in our society easier. They can lower our health care costs, cut heating bills for the poor, drive 21st-century innovation, foster decent jobs, mitigate climate change, create more competitive export industries, weaken petro-dictators — and enhance U.S. national security and moral leadership.
Let Trump fight that idea. If Mother Nature keeps on this destructive track into 2020, well, Trump’s favorite mantra about strong women, “Lock her up,” will look awfully silly.
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